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The meme in the mine – of metaphors, early warnings and dissonant canaries

by | May 28, 2024 | 0 comments

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The world’s coral reefs are bleaching because of climate warming! It’s the ‘canary in the coal mine’ scream the headlines. But is it? Maybe this is one canary that’s more of a dead parrot that no-one wants to acknowledge.

Canaries were sent down with miners into coal mines at the end of the 19th century as an early warning system for detecting the presence of carbon monoxide (Figure 1). The bird’s rapid breathing, small size, and high metabolism, compared to the miners, meant that if significant levels of carbon monoxide were present, the canary would topple over first, giving the miners time to take action – either put on breathing apparatus or evacuating the area.

Figure 1: Mining foreman R Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928. (George McCaa, US Bureau of Mines.)

The idea of a ‘canary in the coalmine’ has long been used in scientific and mainstream media as a metaphor for something giving early warning to an emerging disaster so we can do something about it before it’s too late. And it’s a metaphor used very widely. Consider these three examples:

Parched south-west is ‘canary in the coal mine’ reflecting Australia’s climate change reality tells the story of regional Western Australia gripped by drought with failing local economies. Australia needs to take heed because what’s happening over there is a prelude to what might happen everywhere, or so this story suggests. (BTW, this story appeared a few weeks ago, another tale of profound climate disruption.)

Canary in a coalmine: what Australia looks like from afar is an op ed piece from 2020 by Carl Bildt, a former Swedish Prime Minister, suggesting that how Australia attempts to deal with China and the looming threat of climate change is a signal to the world of how other countries might fare. (So, in this case, Australia is the canary as the rest of the world looks on.)

‘Canaries in the coalmine’: loss of birds signals changing planet tells us that declining bird diversity is itself an early warning of impending disaster. “Birds truly are the canary in the coal mine as indicators for the health of our planet, given their sensitivity to ecosystem changes, their ubiquity around the planet, and how well studied they are. We need to listen and act upon what birds are telling us, as they disappear ever faster,” Patricia Zurita, CEO of Birdlife International, told The Guardian in 2022.

Corals are the canary (?)

But if there was a topic that has been sold to us more than any other as a ‘coalmine canary’, it has to be the planet’s declining coral reefs. Consider Corals, Earth’s Canary in Coal Mines, Facing ‘Calamitous’ Global Declines from Yale Climate Connections. It begins with the hyperbolic statement “The current state of most of the world’s coral reefs is so calamitous that it’s difficult to over-dramatize the situation.”

It pulls no punches declaring the biggest threat to coral reefs is climate warming and rising sea temperatures, and the impacts are there for everyone to see with mass bleaching and significant coral death. The story quotes Jenny Waddell, chief editor of the NOAA reefs report, describing a recent mass bleaching of Caribbean reefs: “It confirmed that our worst nightmare was coming true. When you see a loss of live coral cover of 50 to 90 percent in a nine-month period, it increases the urgency with which people are working.”

But here’s my problem with the whole ‘canary in the coalmine’ framing. It suggests that we’ll actually do something with the ‘early warning’. This story in Yale Climate Connections isn’t describing the global mass bleaching event currently unravelling around the world in 2024; this story of calamitous decline came out in 2009. And Waddell is describing a major bleaching event that occurred in the Caribbean in the 2005.

Scientists were making predictions in the 1990s that the world’s coral reefs were under threat from climate warming and bleaching, and mass bleaching events were being observed on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) back in 1998 and 2002. Since then, we’ve had horrific mass bleaching events on the GBR in 2016, 2017, 2020 and 2022. And 2024 looks like being the worst event of them all though the data collection is still continuing on this one.

The dissonant canary (metaphor)

‘Canary in the coalmine’ does not begin to describe what we are seeing with the destruction of one of the planet’s most biodiverse and important ecosystems.

Canaries were sent down with miners to protect the mine asset and the workers creating value from that asset. If the canary topples, the miners act. There’s no point sending down a canary if the warning it provides will be ignored.

The whole point of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphor is that the early warning guides us in telling us when we need to act. You don’t ignore the fallen canary, whereas we are not heeding the warning provided by the bleaching coral. Why? Well, basically the Earth system, humanity and coral ecosystems are all complex systems where a coal mine and a canary gas sensor are relatively simple by comparison. The canary’s behaviour is tightly linked to management policy and the system is configured to respond when it topples.

When the coral reef topples, however, everyone is shocked but there’s no strong connection to the forces that are warping the Earth system causing the oceans to warm. Governments are too influenced by the rich and powerful to curtail their business, activities that are driving up concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Strange scenes in the coal mine

Ironically, the activity that contributes disproportionately to the carbon emissions that are killing our coral reefs is the burning of coal, one of the ‘dirtiest’ (carbon intense) forms of fossil fuel available to humanity.

In 2017, following the second mass coral bleaching on the GBR in a row, the Climate Change Council wrote to the federal government imploring it to stop the development of further coal mines. In its letter, the Council said: “We have a clear and urgent choice. The future of coral reefs depends on how much and how fast we reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. To stabilise the climate and to meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, most of the known fossil fuel reserves of coal, oil and gas must remain in the ground. In fact, virtually all of the known reserves of coal must stay in the ground, given the very high ratio of carbon dioxide emitted to energy produced when burnt.”

Their pleading was ignored at the time. Indeed, Scott Morrison, then Treasurer, soon to be Prime Minister, mocked the environmental lobby by holding up a chunk of coal in Parliament saying: “This coal, don’t be afraid, don’t be scared.”

So, please, don’t start speaking of coral reefs as canaries in the coal mine. This canary toppled decades ago and no-one in power stopped what they were doing. Monty Python might describe this bird as a long dead parrot.

Banner image: If coral reefs are the canary in the coal mine, what do we do when this canary topples over? Coral reefs have been bleaching now for over a quarter of a century and so far we’ve done nothing. (Image by Fotos-GE from Pixabay)


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